Hockey Central

Depression Hockey

The era spanning January 1, 1920, through October 29, 1929, is often referred to as the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition in the United States was accompanied by bootleg brooze, shorter skirts were deployed in new dances, jazz was discovered by a wider, mixed audience; a general joie de vivre seemed a natural antidote to the hangover left behind after World War I ended. At first the National Hockey League responded slowly to the explosion in sports (along with everything else) that accompanied the 1920s. It wasn't until the 1924-25 season that the league expanded to include its first American team, the Boston Bruins. A year later, the deluge of new teams began with the New York Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates, soon to be followed by entries from Chicago, Detroit and a second from Manhatten, the Rangers.

When league owners convened for their annual meeting in September 1929, they could not have predicted the economic disaster that was so near at that point. They prepared for a 1929-30 campaign that would feature new rules that accented the offense as the Boston Bruins prepared to defend the Stanley Cup. Then came October 29, 1929, and all bets were off, everywhere. WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG, shouted a headline in Variety, the show business weekly, as just one example. Between 1929 and 1931, stock losses alone were estimated at $50 billion. The Great Depression quickly overcame North American life and would have a profound effect on the NHL too. The massive unemployment that was part and parcel of the Great Depression meant that hockey fans, like almost everyone else, had less to spend on entertainment – that is, if they had any money at all, or a source of it, i.e. a job.

At first the league weathered the economic storm with no significant negative effects, but as the Depression lengthened, attendance dropped and clubs folded. In 1930, the Pittsburgh franchise was moved to Philadelphia – with little success. The Quakers suffered through an abysmal 1930-31 season with four wins, four ties and 36 losses before they asked permission to cease operations at the September 26, 1931, club owners meeting. Ottawa did likewise even though the Senators had enjoyed a more successful season. And considering the city's rich hockey heritage, the loss of Ottawa sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world. The franchise requested permission to lease its players until it could resume operations and Ottawa rejoined the league after a one-year absence, but the NHL board of governors later gave the Senators permission to move the franchise to St. Louis and the St. Louis Eagles were born in 1934.

No less affected by the Depression, the Eagles also suffered mightily at the gate and on the ice. At the time, the team had one outstanding line: Syd Howe (no relation to Gordie) on left wing, Frank Finnigan on right wing and Bill Cowley at Center. Howe was among the league's top scorers. Finnigan was a cagey and reliable veteran and Cowley displayed all the potential of a budding star. But the struggling franchise needed financial support and its first move was to deal Howe to Detroit for cash and Finnigan to Toronto for more cash. Eventually, Syd Howe and Bill Cowley ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The St. Louis Eagles did not.

Playing their final game of the season in St. Louis on March 12, 1935, the Eagles closed at home with a flourish by defeating the Red Wings 3-2. The last game of that miserable year was on the road at Maple Leafs Gardens, where St. Louis lost 5-3. The standings at season's end showed the Eagles with 11 wins, six ties and 31 defeats – the year's worst in the league.

Obviously, the St. Louis franchise was in desperate trouble. On September 28, 1935, the club asked the NHL board of governors for permission to suspend operations for one year. The board refused and instead proposed that the league buy the rights to players under option to St. Louis, with the understanding that the money would be paid to the club if the league managed to sell the franchise. At a second meeting on October 15, 1935, the league agreed to buy the franchise and its players. The board of governors then assigned a cash value to each of the Eagles players and held a draft in which the league's lowest-placed teams had first crack at the available talent.

Such setbacks notwithstanding, the NHL was able to plod through the harsh years of the 1930s and survive with no less than two franchises in New York (the Americans and Rangers) and Montreal (the Canadiens and Maroons). Still, at a time when the continent's hit tunes were "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" and "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," novel methods were used to lure fans to hockey rinks. In Atlantic City, they were invited to bring a bag of food to Convention Hall in lieu of cash to see an exhibition game between the Rangers and the Atlantic City Sea Gulls. The result was the largest crowd ever to witness a hockey game to that point – 22,157. Meanwhile, Detroit registered one of the smallest crowds – 2,000. It was a barometer of things to come for the rest of the decade.

At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers-Americans rivalry thrived although management reluctantly agreed to a one-third reduction in prices to adjust to the lower cost of living and reduced salaries. And Garden officials, headed by Tom Lockhart, found yet another way to draw fans. Lockhart had organized the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, including a team in New York (the Rovers) which featured graduates from the Canadian juniors who were willing to play on the senior level as a stepping stone to the NHL. A Rangers farm team, the Rovers played on Sunday afternoons at the Garden for half the price of an NHL ticket and became so popular that crowds averaging 11,000 were not unusual during the Depression.

Meanwhile, as if to outface the Depression, Conn Smythe orchestrated construction of a new ice palace in Toronto. Defying doubters – and probably logic – Maple Leaf Gardens opened on schedule on November 12, 1931. On March 6, 1933, all banks in the United States were ordered closed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whereupon Congress passed New Deal social and economic measures to ease the country through its economic woes. Only the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, offered some solace to the embattled nation – although not to Americans owner William "Big Bill" Dwyer, who had made his fortune as a bootlegger.

Fortunately, the quality of NHL hockey remained high. Marquee players such as Howie Morenz, Eddie Shore, King Clancy and Frank Boucher excited the crowds. Some of them resisted the league's plea for fiscal prudence, however, the most notable being crack defenseman Eddie Shore. At one point, he announced to the Boston media that he'd quit before taking a salary cut, as suggested by Bruins management. He eventually signed a contract for $7,500, the maximum allowed by the NHL in 1933. By 1935, it had become apparent that the Depression was not letting up. Without Dwyer's bankroll, the Americans hit the financial skids but remained competitive. In desperation, the league set a collective salary limit for clubs at $62,500, while no individual player would be permitted a contract in excess of $7,000. The American Congress passed the Social Security Act that same year.

Hockey fans still had a good deal to cheer about, particularly in Detroit, where a dynasty was in the making under the orchestration of Jack Adams. In 1936, the Motor City sextet won its first two consecutive Stanley Cup titles, and en route engaged in one of the most memorable games in NHL annals.

On March 26, 1936, the Red Wings and Montreal Maroons played the longest NHL game ever. The playoff match lasted into a ninth period, by which time the veterans on both teams were fatigued beyond recovery. It became essential to employ the players with the most stamina left; naturally, those were the inexperienced young skaters like Moderre "Mud" Bruneteau, a fresh-faced Red Wing rookie – the youngest man in the longest game.

At the 16-minute mark of the sixth overtime period, Bruneteau went to work. He surrounded the puck in the Detroit zone and passed to Hec Kilrea. The two teammates proceeded to challenge the Montreal defense, Kilrea faking a return pass, then sliding it across the blue line.

Bruneteau cut behind the defense, retrieved the puck in front of goalie Larne Chabot and banged it in for the winning goal. "Thank God Chabot fell down as I drove it in the net," said Bruneteau. "It was the funniest thing. The puck just stuck there in the twine and it didn't fall to the ice." After 116 minutes and 30 seconds of overtime, the Red Wings had at last defeated the Maroons – thanks to Mud Bruneteau. The marathon game – still the longest in NHL history – was one of a number of memorable events sprinkled throughout the Depression. While the economic crisis continued unabated through the late 1930s, big-league hockey was making big news. Some of it was sad, as in the case of its once greatest star, Howie Morenz, and some of it was glad, as in the emergence of fresh talent and sparkling new forwards line that – unlike today's game – often stayed together for a full season or more.

The years 1936, 1937 and 1938 were filled with such incidents. During the 1936-37 season, Morenz had regained his stardom with the Canadiens and appeared on target for a banner season when he suffered a badly broken leg and was hospiralized, where he died unexpectedly on March 8, 1937. Prior to an all-star game to benefit his family, some of Howie's equipment was auctioned off and the star's jersey was presented to his son, Howie Jr. Played at the Montreal Forum on November 2, 1937, the game featured a team of NHL stars against a squard that combined Canadiens and Maroons stars. The All-Stars won 6-5.

Meanwhile, Detroit's attempt to win an unprecedented third consecutive Stanley Cup championship was failing, leaving the race open to virtually every club. Particularly impressive were the Bruins, who had fashioned a forward line out of three youngsters from Kitchener, Ontario. (Prior to World War I the town was named Berlin.) Bobby Bauer, Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart were dubbed the Kraut Line, or occasionally the Kitchener Kids. Boston was bragging about another trio – Charlie Sands, Bill Cowley and Ray Getliffe – that was as threatening as the Krauts. Not to be outdone, the Rangers formed a young line of their own featuring the brother act of Neil and Mac Colville along with Alex Shibicky to compete against the Americans' triumvirate of Sweeney Schriner, Art Chapman and Lorne Carr, who delivered headlines in the New York papers.

Yes, even the star-spangled Americans had a chance. Despite the fiscal crisis brought on by the Depression, the Americans – who had been taken over by the NHL itself – upstaged the wealthier and more secure Rangers. Amerks leader Red Dutton, who had become manager and coach, signed veteran defensemen Hap Day and Ching Johnson, who had been released by the Leaf's and Rangers respectively, and added Earl Robertson in goal. Completely out of character, the Americans turned into contenders and actually finished in second place in the Canadian Division. Schriner led the team in goals (21) and scoring (38 points). "What made me so proud," said Dutton, "was that I signed Sweeney to his first pro contract. I brought him in along with Art Chapman and Lorne Carr, and together they made one of the greatest lines in hockey." In one of the finest intracity series in any sport, any time, the Americans took on the roundly loathed Rangers in the opening round of the 1937-38 playoffs. Dutton's Americans won the first game 2-1 on Johnny Sorrell's double-overtime goal; the Rangers rebounded, winning the second match 4-3; and the stage was set for the climactic finale on March 27, 1938, at Madison Square Garden. The largest crowd of the season, 16,240 fans, jammed the arena and saw a pulsating contest. Paced by Shibicky and Bryan Hextall, the Rangers jumped to a 2-0 lead. But Carr and Nels Stewart tied it and sent the game into overtime. Neither team could break the tie for two sudden-death periods. Finally, Carr scored the winner for Dutton at 0:40 of the third overtime.

"That," said Red, "was the greatest thrill I ever got in hockey. The Rangers had a high-priced team and beating them was like winning the Stanley Cup for us." The Americans were knocked out of the playoffs two games to one in the next round by Chicago and they never achieved such lofty heights again – but at least they survived. North of the border, the fiscally challenged Montreal Maroons became the next victim of the Depression, only three years after winning the Stanley Cup in 1935. Minus the Maroons, the NHL opened the 1938-39 season with only seven teams, five in the United States and two in Canada.

If any solace could be obtained from the Depression's effect on big-league hockey it was offered by ownership, who could legitimately claim that NHL quality and intensity were at a peak.

Maple Leafs front office aide (and later Canadiens managing director) Frank Selke Sr. noted that the Depression created an owners' market: "There were bread lines and men on street corners selling apples and widespread unemployment for years, starting in 1930. For a young Canadian to have a job playing hockey and to get paid pretty well for it was quite an asset. It was the kind of employment every player wanted to keep and that's one reason why they competed so hard in those years."

The onset of World War II brought about the end of the Great Depression as one trauma replaced another. Unfortunately, one last NHL victim was claimed – the lowly Americans. With his players enlisting in the armed services and his club crippled by huge debts, Dutton was forced to fold the franchise just when he was starting to pull out from under the debris of the Bill Dwyer days. "We had begun to pay off a lot of Bill's debts," said Dutton, "and it looked as though we were going to come out all right. A couple of years and we could have run the Rangers right out of the rink." By the time the Americans folded in the spring of 1942, the United States had entered World War II and the Great Depression was over.

From its conception until its conclusion at the start of the 1940s, North America's economic disaster had a profound effect on major-league hockey. It cost the NHL franchises in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Ottawa, St. Louis, Montreal and New York and the league was reduced to six teams, two in Canada and four in the United States. Even in postwar prosperity, the NHL would bear the Depression's scars through the mid-1960s, when it finally and robustly expanded from six to a dozen teams, as if to make up for the time wasted over three decades.